You know that a book that opens up with a David Abram quote isn't going to be an ordinary academic text. In a sense, HEH dives into the real complexitYou know that a book that opens up with a David Abram quote isn't going to be an ordinary academic text. In a sense, HEH dives into the real complexities that Abram invokes with such magic; it proves his point by starting us on the journey of really getting to know a place.
HEH is a tremendously good tool to explore the history of a place. Not only does it clue you in to aspects of historical data you would never have thought of--from historical soil surveys to plant phytoliths--nearly each chapter provides bibliographic references on where to start looking for relevant studies and records for each region of the country. The unique strengths and limitations of each technique are fleshed out, and the book ends with case studies that explain how they can be used in synergy.
Since I'm not using the book right now, what I got out of it (beyond knowing that I should come back to it when I do have a place/project) is a reinforcement of the complexity of ecological history. Restoration ecology is often critiqued for attempting to halt natural change and inhibit ecosystem dynamism by restoring an idealized historical state. Everything in the book makes it quite clear that that is impossible; each technique described produces a picture at a different resolution and timescale, and together they at best reveal several interacting change drivers acting at different rates. Rather than providing a fixed and static picture of what an ecosystem "should" look like in its natural state, historical ecology shows us a place as a character: defined by its responses to changing conditions.
This is something permaculture practitioners could stand to learn in greater detail. It's quite true that Anthropocene ecosystems must be vastly different from those of the Holocene, but historical ecology doesn't just describe what was. It tells us what could be. On a larger scale, its findings will likely be key to informing restoration ecology theory--things like threshold dynamics as functions of climate, vegetation composition, and disturbance rates--which would necessarily be (as I see it) a key underpinning of an effective Anthropocene (agro)ecosystem plan. ...more
Science is meant to provide provocative, unexpected insights into our world, providing clues that can help us do whatever it is we want to do. The besScience is meant to provide provocative, unexpected insights into our world, providing clues that can help us do whatever it is we want to do. The best scientists find insights that make the world a better place, and present their findings in ways that can inspire communities to act on them. This book is among the very best science books I'm familiar with, ranking up there with The Diversity of Life and Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.
The book takes a simple, obvious progressive mantra - more equal societies are better for people - and scientifically demonstrates its validity in more ways than the most optimistic of us would ever have guessed. Wilkinson and Pickett show how inequality erodes social trust, decreases educational performance, increases homicides, shortens lives, increases consumption, causes greater conflict among children, increases drug use and mental illness, and increases the number of people in prison. Their results are checked on rich nations and among the United States. The relationship is shocking - it seems that inequality is, after a certain level of economic well-being (per capita GDP) is reached, it is by far the most important determinant of societal well-being.
Their results showed that it didn't matter how a society became more equal - government organized wealth redistribution or natural market mechanisms or a strong labor movement (trade union membership is apparently the strongest predictor of inequality in a nation).
Pickett and Wilkinson included a pleasing amount of speculation and research about HOW inequality causes all of the social ills it does. Apparently, merely being judged constantly as to one's social status is extremely stressful (for everyone, but moreso if you're on the bottom!). This stress leads to all sorts of things - direct health consequences, impaired mental and physical abilities, violent responses to those who question one's status, distrust of others (they are competitors, not friends!), etc. It is passed down from generation to generation, starting with stress hormones that influence a baby's development in the womb, cuing them to prepare for a harsh, antagonistic world. The results demonstrate that poverty really does inhibit peoples' ability to succeed socially, and not just for the host of obvious reasons (disenfranchisement, nutrition, etc) that are usually discussed.
I found this conversation quite interesting, since the mechanisms they cite would have been active in all societies since the advent of severe inequality. Of course, inequality was much more severe in many past societies than it is in ours, so the effects were likely more severe. These biological responses to hierarchy likely explain some of the socially corrosive effects associated with civilization.
The conclusions of the book are quite obvious, then: make societies more equal and all the other problems will improve on their own. In fact, increasing equality is the most effective measure known to address most of these issues. As the authors say, "[symptomatic solutions] attempt to break the link between socio-economic disadvantage and the problems it produces. The unstated hope is that people - particularly the poor - can carry on in the same circumstances, but will somehow no longer succumb to mental illness, teenage pregnancy, educational failure, obesity, or drugs."
“In the figures there is also a clear warning for those who might want to place low public expenditure and taxation at the top of their list of priorities. If you fail to avoid high inequality, you will need more prisons and more police. You will have to deal with higher rates of mental illness, drug abuse, and every other kind of problem. If keeping taxes and benefits down leads to wider income differences, the need to deal with the ensuing social ills may force you to raise public expenditure to cope.” ...more
A disclaimer: I only read the first chapter, the conclusion, the postscript, and the appendix of this book. These are the parts that focus on the theoA disclaimer: I only read the first chapter, the conclusion, the postscript, and the appendix of this book. These are the parts that focus on the theory itself in idealized and theoretical terms. The rest of the book, chapters 2-6, I chose to skip due to time constraints, and consists of historical applications of the theory. For someone interested in the history of the New Deal, the 1988 and 1992 elections (the latter being apparently of interest to modern politics, since the 2008 election was supposedly a rehearsal of it), these chapters would certainly be worth reading.
Ferguson's theory makes everything make sense, both historically and politically. After years of being inundated with the notion that voters have been controlling US politics for the entirety of our history but feeling that this understanding was false and hollow, the investment theory of elections brings a refreshing clarity and focus to the area. Historically, we now know where to look to find the driving forces in political events. It resolves what for me was a lingering doubt about the capacity of ideas and ideologies to independently impel economic, concrete forces in history. My understanding of this relationship is now considerably clearer: the ideology of the populace is not dependent on economic forces, as I had once thought; the reason it is not the driving force in supposedly democratic elections is merely because economic inequality prevents the people from having a real influence on those elections.
This is the political implication of the book, which Ferguson could have made more of. The book is clearly meant for an audience of political scientists, and I think a popularization of his conclusions is called for (and may already exist?) Anyway, what Ferguson wants us to understand is that big business controls politics; that this is most emphatically NOT a democracy. The 'golden' rule the country, as it were (and of course this doesn't only apply in the US).
In order for democracy to exist, real, deep election reform is necessary, reform that heavily subsidizes politics in a way that makes campaigning available to everyone, not just those willing to carry out the policies of rich investors. Until this reform takes place, the interests of our government will be entirely at odds with those of most voters, and thus the policies it enacts will be, to varying degrees, harmful to those voters. The examples of this are almost limitless, but see for example the government's position on climate change, food reform, healthcare, foreign policy (particularly the defense budget itself), pollution regulation, etc. ...more